Why “Fitness First” Needs to be Your New Mantra



This week I came across an article in the New York Times about the University of Connecticut women’s basketball program, and it caught my attention because it highlights a subject my coaches and I have been shouting from the rooftops for years: Fitness First!

The UConn Huskies are 34-0 this season with only a 7-player rotation, meaning individual players are on the court more minutes than their opponents. But this isn’t just a miraculous season for UConn. They’ve won their last 109 consecutive games, not because they have a dream team of once-in-a-lifetime basketball talents, but because they are supremely fit. This may come as no surprise to long-time readers of this blog or books like “The Time-Crunched Cyclist, 3rd Edition” and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”. But you may be surprised to learn that prioritizing high-level aerobic fitness is a revolutionary concept in many sports, even at NCAA, Olympic, and professional levels. Even endurance athletes who are easily seduced by promises of marginal gains could use a refresher on why fitness comes first.

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Let’s use examples from the NY Times article on the UConn Huskies to illustrate what I mean:

Example: “UConn’s brisk, two-hour practices are designed to prepare the regulars to play 30 or more of a game’s 40 minutes and to make quick and correct decisions when they are tired…”

If you are competing intensely you will fatigue. Everyone will. Greater fitness means starting the competition with more capacity for intense performance. You will fatigue, but from a higher starting point. That can mean the early portion of the game or race takes less out of you, leaving more gas in the tank for the later portion. It can also provide the ability to play/race with more intensity early on without a catastrophic crash in performance later.

Example: “We do things to get us tired, and then when we get tired, we do things that require us to be mentally smart,” said Kia Nurse, a junior guard who has hit a remarkable 15 of 19 3-point attempts in this N.C.A.A. tournament.

Fitness makes you smarter and allows you to hold on to your reaction time and reflexes. When we worked with racing drivers like Carl Edwards, Bobby Labonte, and Eliseo Salazar, as well as motorcycle racers Miquel Duhamel and Ben Bostrom, we learned reaction time and the ability to make split-second decisions decline with fatigue. The consequences of this can be harder to see with runners, cyclists, and triathletes because speeds are much lower. In the past 10 years we have seen more and more drivers focusing on fitness, to the point there’s a dedicated group of NASCAR drivers who go on training rides together. They even convinced Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to join them!

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Example: “Compared to practice, Nurse said, ‘The game is much easier.’ As the fourth quarter begins, she added: ‘That’s when your mind-set kicks in that we’re not tired. The other team might give up, but there’s no chance that we are.’”

As far as I can tell, the adage “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle” originated as “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war,” said by Chinese General Chiang Kai-shek in 1939 (and later by US General Norman Schwarzkopf). Fitness gives athletes the ability to put in more work during training without incurring injuries. It means they can train at competition intensity more often, train more consistently, recover more quickly, and come back for more. Some people think it is willpower or determination that enables an athlete to train harder or longer, but it isn’t. Your ability to train effectively is determined by your fitness, not your desire.

Example: “’That’s why we always look so good at the end, because we’re still getting stronger, or at least maintaining, where other teams are not lifting, possibly, or they’re backing off because they want to stay fresh for the tournament,’ said Kimball, the strength and conditioning coach.”

When athletes lack fitness they have to stop training and start resting earlier before major competitions. With more fitness your body is accustomed to a higher workload and you can continue with more productive training during a block of competition. Recovery is still crucial, but greater fitness enhances an athlete’s ability to recover rapidly because they are more prepared to cope with the training workload.

Example: “Nothing gets you ready to play basketball like playing basketball.”

This quote from UConn’s Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma points directly to the principle of training specificity. While UConn utilizes strength training, sports nutrition, recovery monitoring, and generalized aerobic conditioning workouts, the most important thing they do may be applying high-intensity training principles in sport-specific workouts. They do the skills-and-drills work everyone does, but they do them faster and with fewer interruptions. If you want to be a faster cyclist, runner, or triathlete your primary training activities need to be sport specific. For many elite and time-crunched athletes this may mean foregoing ancillary activities that direct time and energy away from gaining sport-specific fitness.

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Why Coaches and Athletes Undervalue Fitness

Some team and highly technical sports chronically undervalue aerobic fitness. UConn’s opponents experience the result every game as they get run up and down the court at an unrelenting pace. In sports like basketball, ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse, and soccer, games almost always slow down in the final period/quarter/half. When we worked with an NHL team and looked at the demands of the sport and opportunities for improvement, the data showed skating speed and shots on goal both diminished in the third period, while errors committed increased.

When working with the Women’s US National Field Hockey Team on a similar project, we used heart rate monitors and GPS units to determine running mileage and intensity during games. Not only did the games slow down in the second half, but we also identified issues with the one-size-fits all aerobic conditioning protocols often utilized in team sports. When the whole team runs a set distance or duration together, the endurance or aerobic conditioning component of training is not tailored to the individual.

One of the criticisms leveled at endurance sports is that we “win at exercising”. It’s meant as a slight because running, cycling, and triathlon aren’t perceived to be skill- and strategy-driven sports compared with stick and ball sports. My view, however, is that stick and ball sports should embrace the fact we’re “pros at exercising” and incorporate and adapt more training, nutrition, and recovery techniques from endurance sports. For instance, another New York Times article this week talked about resting star NBA players during the season as if it was a novel concept. The best quote came from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: “We have definitely added years to people. So it’s a trade-off. You want to see this guy in this one game? Or do you want to see him for three more years in his career?” To be fair, the NBA and major arena sports have a difficult balance to achieve. There are pressures from ticket-buying fans and big money sponsors who want to see stars play, but I think Spurs star Tim Duncan’s ability to play at a high level into his 19th NBA season proved the value of prioritizing rest.

Success in endurance sports depends more on maximizing aerobic fitness than it does on skill acquisition and team dynamics that need to be practiced and reinforced constantly. As a result, in my experience I have found endurance athletes and coaches often have a deeper understanding of how to develop sport-specific fitness to meet the aerobic, glycolytic, and VO2 max demands of a given activity. It’s good to see more and more sports lean in the direction of endurance sports in their prioritization of aerobic fitness, sports nutrition, and modern recovery techniques. We can’t catch, throw, or hit anything, but we are damned good at exercising and recovering!

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 14

  1. A (supposed) quote from a soldier in one of Julius Caesar’s legions: “His drills were bloody battles; his battles bloody drills.”

  2. Unfortunate Chiang Kai Shek quote. CKS lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Tse Tung, largely because of his reluctance to bleed in battle against the occupying Japanese or indeed against the Maoists. He then fled to Taiwan, where he massacred the local ruling class and set up a military dictatorship that Taiwan has only recently emerged
    from. (The article is very good on exercise though.)

  3. “Win at exercising” huh??
    Hah! Nice line, but I would choose to say that “winning at exercising” means in the end winning at a better, longer life.
    Go do a study of endurance athletes and how long they live; especially against how well they are living when older. And .. I feel pretty safe in saying that they will be vastly better off in later years than the average American football, basketball, baseball, tennis players, etc. If the pro athlete has switched over to and/or added endurance training then I’m sure the result is much better.

    1. Actually they have done extensive tests on sports and activities that help prolong life. Tennis was among the best activities due to its full body movements. And if you play on clay the wear and tear is much easier on the legs than running on hard surfaces.

  4. On my 1str trip to the North Face of Everest in ’91 I was the weakest climber in terms of technical skill. But I was arguably the fittest (save for the animal, Tim Rippel). It was a high level of fitness that enabled me to climb above 8,000m (26,000′) on that trip and the summit in later years. Fitness. Fitness. Fitness. Wins races and save lives!

  5. On my 1st trip to Everest’s North Face in ’91 I was the least skilled member of the team in terms of technical climbing ability, but I was maybe the fittest (save for Tim Rippel). I realized then: a high level of fitness made it possible for me to climb above 8,000m (26,000). Fitness First indeed!

  6. Good, no, very good article… My hockey coaches all emphasized the mantra, “You play the way you practice” So we worked incredibly hard in practices, non-stop hard efforts, drills, speed, speed speed and fast paced passing drills, endurance, endurance, endurance. We worked so hard that I threw up over the boards in many practices but never threw up in a game. I’ve adapted that to every sport I’ve been involved in from football to big water kayaking and to cycling. It seems that in cycling, while others are tired at the end of an event, I’m still ready to rock and roll.

    1. I actually worked at Polar for 19 years and worked with Chris. And we worked extensively with UCONN basketball. They simulated how much active time in segments there were between play time and say an out of bounds. They then figured out the average off time or rest. They then structured individual interval programs for the players using those parameters and their individual heart rates. Also saw it done with no huddle offenses and hockey shifts. Understand your intensity during game time and then simulate it in practice.

  7. This is a very good and interesting article as a cyclist and basketball fan. I do wish you had defined “fitness” and how you are using and measuring the term “fitness” for this article.

  8. I agree Chris. I am 78 years old and am starting to have difficulty keeping my fitness. Of course I don’t train in the winter like I do in the summer, but I can still hang in there, eat the right foods and try to recover correctly. This last year I was the oldest competing cyclist in Kentucky. Thanks for the great articles.

    1. Wooow @ 78 and you are “starting” to have difficulty keeping your fitness?? this is so inspiring, You made my day. I am concern about turning 44 and noticing that recovery and gaining fitness is not as fast as used to be. Congratulations!!!

  9. Chris,
    Thank you very much for this inspirational writing. The last sentence is a classic.

    Thanks for all your efforts,
    Joe Downs

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